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The government of Mexico made Fidel Herrera Beltrán its consul in Barcelona, but there was considerable doubt about his true loyalties and interests during his time in Spain.
From the start, Herrera stood apart from the other diplomats representing their country’s commercial interests and providing routine travel services in the Catalonian capital.
He seldom appeared at diplomatic social events, where gossip over tapas and drinks surely involved his unorthodox appointment. Mexican Ambassador Roberta Lajous once refused to be photographed with him, and the Barcelona city government demanded to know why the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs had accepted his credentials.
When out on the town, the Mexican career politician traveled in a high-security bubble uncommon for a consul in such a pleasant posting.
Herrera drove “like a sheriff” in Barcelona, said an officer for a Spanish security agency. “He always moved in a capsule. With one van behind, another in front, and him in the center. If he went into a restaurant, they inspected it first.”
His bodyguards were soon known around the city as “The Men in Black” because of their matching black suits.
The agent knows this because he and others were watching Herrera from the moment he arrived in October 2015. What they saw was a fierce bundle of energy.
He appeared at exhibitions and art auctions, met business leaders and promoted commercial initiatives. Mexican news outlets said he made resumption of direct flights between Barcelona and Cancun a top priority. But he also met with unsavory people and made unusual visits to nearby Andorra, well beyond his consular jurisdiction.
“He was a networking machine,” said another Spanish police officer who was also watching from the shadows.
It didn’t require skilled detective work or modern forensics to identify Herrera as something more than a bureaucrat representing his government. A quick Google search easily revealed the rumors about the infamous former governor of the Mexican state of Veracruz.
Herrera had never been charged with a crime but was openly accused of being a leader in Los Zetas, one of Mexico’s most violent drug cartels. Some people even spoke of him as the vicious cartel’s ultimate leader, Zeta 1.
Senior U.S. law enforcement officials confirm that they have investigated Herrera’s alleged links to the Zeta cartel, as well as suspected money laundering in Veracruz, Barcelona, and the U.S.
“Herrera would take money from everyone. He was always into a kickback,” said a senior U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration official who spoke of interests “in oil, horse racing, mining, heavy equipment.”
The DEA wouldn’t say if Herrera is currently under investigation, but Spanish authorities confirm that they watched his every move and catalogued his contacts during his time in Barcelona. It was intelligence-gathering, not a formal criminal investigation.
“The criminal intelligence services of the Mossos received information that the Mexican consul could be linked to money laundering networks and have criminal relationships with important drug traffickers in Catalonia,” Toni Rodriguez, the chief of the Criminal Investigation Division of Catalonia’s Mossos d’Esquadra told OCCRP in the dry language cops use when speaking to reporters.
Spanish law enforcement stopped actively looking into Herrera when he abruptly resigned his post and returned to Mexico in January 2017, but their work didn’t go to waste. Several people on that police diagram are now under formal investigation or have been arrested.
In Veracruz, people speak of a before and an after –– before Fidel Herrera was elected governor in 2004 and after he left office in 2010.
He was a native son of Veracruz, born, raised, and educated as a lawyer in the state that hugs the Gulf of Mexico. As a member of the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), he was elected to the national congress in 1973 and later to the Senate before ascending to the governorship. Herrera represented the state’s agricultural interests and, at least in public, championed economic development, clean water, and increased transparency of public institutions.
But dark times visited Veracruz during his time as governor. Violence grew rapidly during his administration. In 2004, Veracruz had five known homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. By 2009, that figure had doubled. Among the dead were journalists like Luis Daniel Méndez Hernández, a radio reporter murdered in February 2009. Her headless corpse was found two days later.
The ultra-violent Los Zetas, once a paramilitary enforcement arm of the storied Gulf Cartel, also grew exponentially during those years. Following bloody gang wars, Los Zetas took control of the region and its crown jewel, the international port perfect for the shipment of cocaine and synthetic drugs to the U.S. and Europe.
Starting in 2010, the Mexican Attorney General’s office opened several investigations into the links between Los Zetas and Herrera during his time as governor.
Los Zetas confer rank in the form of numbers, calling their leader Zeta 1. While Herrera is often given that title by Mexican media and human rights activities, authorities say he doesn’t run the gang.
“Los Zetas could not operate in Veracruz without the permission or the consent of Fidel Herrera,’’ said Jorge Rebolledo Flores, a security consultant with more than a decade’s experience in Veracruz. “Tacitly, without giving any instructions, he used them to keep order in some regions of the state, in their own way. But he never gave direct instructions. That is very clear.”
“Many of the Zetas who have been arrested — for example those in Texas who have spoken out a lot — do say he was the boss and that they contributed money to [his political] campaign, but they have never said ‘Fidel Herrera told us what to do,’” Rebolledo said.
In 2012, Herrera’s relationship with Los Zetas, long treated as an open secret in Veracruz, became a matter of public record when a cartel money launderer, Francisco Antonio “Pancho” Colorado Cessa, went on trial in a U.S. federal court in Texas.
According to transcripts from that case, FBI agent Scott Lawson told jurors that around 2003 and 2004 Colorado Cessa was “an intermediary between the Zetas and the Government of Veracruz, and that money was paid through Mr. Cessa to the Government of Veracruz as a way to get Zetas freedom of range and freedom of moving the narcotics in the state of Veracruz, and also as a way to help Fidel Herrera finance his campaign for the governorship of Veracruz.”
José Carlos Hinojosa, who was a Los Zetas accountant until his arrest, also testified that the cartel gave $12 million to Colorado Cessa for Herrera’s campaign.
That allegation came to nothing. In Mexico, that’s just business as usual.
“In the U.S., we have big corporations that give money to politicians,” said Arturo Fontes, a former FBI agent in Mexico who now runs a security company, Fontes International Solutions. “In Mexico, politicians rely on narcos. Herrera was paid millions of dollars through liaisons to the cartels to let them operate with impunity.”
Elected officials help launder money by awarding government contracts to cartel-linked companies, with the official taking a percentage as a kickback, Fontes said.
During Herrera’s time in office, state debt increased five-fold through massive increases in public spending, some for contracts awarded to cartel-linked businesses.
Herrera’s administration fed major public works projects to Colorado Cessa’s companies, which were later shown to be cartel fronts. ADT Petroservicios obtained 22 Veracruz state public works contracts valued at around US$1.7 million and signed 30 contracts worth about $170 million for work with Pemex, Mexico’s national oil company, between 2003 and 2011.
“Organized crime has always been very useful for political elites in Mexico,’’ Rebolledo said. “It is much more attractive, more useful to present [Sinaloa Cartel leader] El Chapo Guzmán as the great mastermind of organized crime that controls the country … but in reality, organized crime is a supporting character. Those who really control and manage everything are powerful political figures.”
Veracruz became infamous as one of Mexico’s most violent and corrupt states, and Forbes Magazine in 2013 put Hererra on its list of Mexico’s ten most corrupt people.
Alberto Olvera, a sociologist at the Universidad Veracruzana, said federal officials never took action against Herrera, but not because his government was clean.
“On the contrary,” she said, “they are the ones who opened the doors to massive, systemic and widespread corruption.”
El Proceso, a Mexican weekly magazine, once tried to nail down the source of Herrera’s enormous wealth. It documented bank accounts in Mexico and abroad, jewelry, works of art, ranches with livestock, and at least 15 other properties. Local news outlets reported that he first pointed to his wife’s inheritance as the source of his fortune, and later appeared in public saying he had twice won millions in the national lottery.
Herrera left office in 2010 after endorsing his replacement, PRI ally Javier Duarte de Ochoa, who was later sentenced to nine years in prison for official corruption.
After leaving office, Herrera expressed a desire to run for president but never has.
When President Enrique Peña Nieto, who reportedly described Herrera as his “best friend,” named the former governor as consul in Barcelona in October 2015, what would usually be a low-profile appointment made headlines on two continents.
The Barcelona position had traditionally gone to a career diplomat, but Nieto’s Foreign Relations office downgraded the requirements to fit Hererra, which also allowed it to sidestep Senate confirmation. Nieto himself later fled Mexico ahead of cartel-related corruption charges.
Héctor Velásquez Sosa, a political analyst and former Veracruz government official, said Herrera had wanted a prestigious ambassadorial post, but settled for the consular role.
“Making Herrera ambassador would have caused a scandal,” said Velásquez Sosa.
It would have signalled that Herrera was still as powerful, Sosa said, and that would have had political ramifications in the host country because of his reputed ties to drug trafficking.
After arriving in Europe, Herrera made it clear that he wasn’t looking for a cushy job in retirement.
“In Barcelona, Herrera maintained a frenetic pace,’’ a law enforcement official said. “It was very difficult to know where the consulship ended and where the cartel began.”
Some of his work appeared innocent enough. Though he skipped diplomatic events, Herrera often appeared at cultural activities organized by Mexcat, a Mexican-Catalan cultural organization.
And he organized meetings with companies in regard to seemingly mundane topics such as packaging of pharmaceutical products.
But the watchers suspected more sinister motivation to his flurry of contacts with different companies –– illegal drugs could be shipped in outwardly legitimate wrapping, they noted.
“If you want to make an elephant pass through the Diagonal [a busy Barcelona avenue] without drawing attention, the best you can do is have a circus pass by,” the law enforcement official said.
Spanish authorities also watched as Herrera established close relationships with individuals they subsequently charged with money laundering or drug trafficking.
Notable contacts included Simón Montero Jodorovich, the reputed leader of Barcelona’s most active drug distribution gang, said Rodriguez, the police chief. Montero Jodorovich was arrested late last year on drug trafficking and money laundering charges in conjunction with an ongoing investigation that includes the Barcelona-based honorary consuls of Mali, Albania, and Croatia. Repeated attempts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful.
Mossos d’Esquadra created a detailed diagram of Herrera’s business and personal contacts. It shows known Los Zetas figures and prominently features a Spanish publishing house, Malpaso Ediciones, owned by Mexican citizen Bernardo Domínguez Cereceres.
There is other evidence of a connection. Domínguez Cereceres and his publishing house — which translates as “Misstep Editions” — were also featured in a 2018 report on Herrera commissioned by the Barcelona City Council. The report cites confidential sources saying Herrara has an economic stake in the bookstore and a local restaurant.
While Herrera was known to frequent art exhibitions and auctions at both locales, OCCRP could find no proof that he had a stake in either one.
Bernardo Domínguez denies any business or commercial relationship with Fidel Herrera. “None, of any kind, ever,’’ he told OCCRP. “I never bought or sold anything from him. He never raised [the issue of] business with me.”
Dominguez acknowledges that he met for meals with Fidel Herrera when he was in Barcelona, and that he visited him in Mexico when he was admitted to the hospital after suffering a stroke.
But he emphatically denied any link to cartels, or any business ties to Herrera.
“I am not going to allow baseless accusations of organized crime,” he said. “I do not have any business with the Mexican government, nor with that of any country… Nothing, nothing, nothing.”
In July, Domínguez Cereceres was charged with laundering money for the benefit of the relatives of former Catalan President Jordi Pujol.
Domínguez Cereceres is accused of making fictitious loans in Mexico to mask money transfers to Pujol’s sons. Spanish authorities say the money was always routed through Andorra.
The tiny independent principality of Andorra, nestled in the Pyrenees between Spain and France, played an outsized role in Hererra’s activities while he was posted to Barcelona.
Herrera once joked during a newspaper interview that he knew every Andorran in Mexico, and two sources have told OCCRP that he posed as a consul for that country even though it was not part of his consular territory.
The Mossos d’Esquadra diagram links Herrera to Jordi Segarra, an Andorran political consultant who has advised PRI gubernatorial candidates. A single word on the chart describes their relationship: “Collaborate.”
In January the Mexican Attorney General’s Office confirmed that Segarra is under investigation for laundering money while working for PRI in Mexico. His bank accounts there are frozen.
Why Herrera spent so much time in Andorra is unclear, but the country’s status as a secretive offshore banking center willing to accept dirty money from around the world may be an indication.
Andorra was under heightened scrutiny when Herrera became consul in Barcelona. Seven months earlier, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) had declared Banca Privada d’Andorra a foreign financial institution of primary money laundering concern.
The bank was accused of laundering at least $2 billion siphoned from Venezuela’s public oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, and of accepting money from organized crime and corrupt actors in Russia and China.
The FinCEN move threatened to upend the entire Andorran banking system and forced the government to step in, freezing the bank’s accounts and bringing in new management. The cleanup prompted FinCEN to withdraw its declaration in March 2016.
In January 2017, Herrera abruptly resigned his post and left Barcelona. No official reason was given, but just days earlier an investigative commission had revealed that Veracruz state was paying full price for cancer treatment medications that were actually fakes with no medicinal value. Herrera and Duarte, his successor as governor, were said to be under scrutiny.
Herrera adamantly denied involvement in the scandal and has faced no charges. While he has continued to be involved in Mexican politics, the 71-year-old suffered a severe stroke in April. Reached through a social media account, Herrera’s son, Javier, said his father is too weak to answer questions from reporters.
Nearly four years after Herrera’s departure, the mere mention of his name still triggers fear in Barcelona’s Mexican community. Few Mexicans contacted for this article would speak about him, and none agreed to be named.
Many recall his arrival as “a very dark time.”
“There were people who went into a paranoia,’’ said one Mexican living in Barcelona, recalling the reaction to the announcement of Herrera’s appointment as consul. “Many of us felt as if the rottenness of violence and corruption in Mexico had reached us here.”
“Herrera is very vindictive,’’ said another Mexican. “I fear for my relatives [in Mexico] if I talk openly.”
Herrera remains a mythical figure for some.
“He is much more powerful than Peña Nieto,’’ a Mexican in Barcelona told OCCRP. “He is the smartest. He is the worst of all because he is the best of all.”
Cecilia Anesi (IRPIMedia) contributed reporting.